Keith thought he was looking for a new guitar. The brass numbers, 2281, nailed above the door of Vic’s E-Z Pawn told him to go in. He trusted the numbers. If you added 2+2+8+1 you got 13, which was lucky, because that’s how old he was when he started.
Keith pushed open the door.
“Help you?” A young woman sat on a barstool, her cowboy boots propped on the counter. She was reading a book about Roswell, a horse-faced alien looming on the cover.
He looked around the shop crowded with golf clubs, moose heads, and wedding rings. On the back wall hung a mandolin, an electric bass, and — was that a 1974 Gibson Les Paul? Oh, lucky thirteen.
“The guitars,” he said.
The woman stood. The fan whirring on the counter rippled her dress around her legs. She had nice knees. She got the maybe-Les-Paul down for him. He ran his hands over the body, plucked the strings. This could be the day that changed everything.
She watched him, standing close. “If you ask me, it’s not a guitar you need.”
His fingers stilled. She smelled of peach iced tea.
“What do I need?” He plugged into a nearby amp, and slid his fingers up and down the scales.
“A love potion.”
Woo-woo alarms went off in his head. This was what he could expect from a person who believed in alien abduction.
“Is there something about me that says ‘desperate loser in need of a woman’? Is it the black jeans? The aroma of loneliness?” He plucked his Keith Crust and the Secretions T-shirt–designed, drawn, and screen-printed by him–away from his chest and sniffed. “No, that’s last night’s tacos.”
She laughed. “I’m serious.”
“So am I,” he said, resting the guitar on his knee.
She smiled. She had big teeth. Goofy, but endearing. He looked at his watch. 3:17. Equaled 11, equaled 2. Not a bad time, but not good, either.
She went through a curtain behind the counter and returned with a box of jars and margarine tubs. Into an empty Snapple bottle she poured a shot of diet Fanta, a pinch of oregano, and something that looked like cricket legs.
She slid the filled bottle across the counter. The cricket legs seemed to have dissolved.
“Wait,” she said. “I forgot something.” She retrieved the bottle and turned her back. He heard the cap pop and something clank against the glass. She faced him, shaking the bottle.
“Hey, you didn’t just spit in there, did you?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I’ve always wondered,” she said as she slid the bottle back across the counter. “Is that your real name?”
She pointed at his chest. “You’re Keith Crust, right? You born like that or what?”
He uncapped the bottle and swirled it, peering into its brown depths. “Looks like iced tea.”
“Maybe,” she said.
He drank. It tasted like iced tea. He was thirsty, so he finished it.
“I guess my mother is the only person who’ll ever know,” he said. “How much is the Les Paul?”
“It would be great if it was your real name,” she said. “It would mean it was your destiny. Like, you had no choice about dousing yourself in pig’s blood and pretending to sodomize your bassist with a snowblower. That show at the Swamp was classic.”
He had started life as Keith Crust when he was thirteen and had written the name on his algebra notebook in ballpoint pen. It had felt like destiny. He had wanted to eat maggots and do drugs and carve his flesh with a broken mike stand, annihilating everything. But he was still here.
“What’s your name?” he asked. The tea had left a taste of pickles in the back of his mouth.
She was cute. Maybe he should ask her out. Or maybe she was just a crazy chick who believed in UFOs and worked at a pawn shop. The numbers would let him know. They told him which gigs to take, when albums should be released, if he should order the Moo Shu Pork or the Moo Goo Gai Pan.
“When were you born?” he asked.
“Worried I’m too young for you?”
The calendar behind the counter showed a well-oiled Amazon stretched like high-heeled taffy across the hood of a Ferrari. Jesus, how did it get to be 1987?
He had asked the numbers when his boss offered him full-time instead of staying temp. He even liked working at a desk. It reminded him of being school, drawing the story of Keith Crust. Except now he was drawing the story of how vacuum cleaners made life better.
“You know what?” he said. “Never mind.”
“Forget I asked,” he said.
“The ninth of –”
“No.” He reached across the counter and put his hand against her mouth. “Want to go out?”
“If you take your hand away I’ll think about it.” Her breath tickled his palm.
He dropped his hand.
“What about the guitar?” she said.
“You said I didn’t need one.”
“I lied,” she said.
“I lied. It wasn’t a love potion. It was truth serum.” She spoke into the fan, “Now you will tell me your real name.” Her voice vibrated, low and spooky. He looked at the calendar again. The model’s buttocks gleamed. 1987. Which was 10+15, which was 25, which was 7, which was nothing.
“Krussmacher,” he said. “Keith Krussmacher.”
The stuffed moose watched as Paula hung the closed sign and locked the door. Keith leaned the guitar against the amp, feeding back loops of soft animal squeal. He didn’t trust her at all. He didn’t have the numbers, he didn’t know what she was worth. As he moved towards her, it was like what stepping out on stage used to be: his voice crouched in his throat, his heart beating in his palms, as he burst out under the lights and let the bright world rip through him.
Alisa Alering was hatched in a secret hollow in the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania, where she ran around barefoot and talked to the trees. She now lives, writes, and concocts questionable beverages in southern Indiana. She is a 2011 graduate of Clarion West and a 2012 winner of Writers of the Future. Her fiction is forthcoming in Clockwork Phoenix IV and from Aqueduct Press. She contributes the Writer’s Room column to Waylines magazine. Visit her at http://alisaword.wordpress.com or on Twitter @alering.
Beautiful story. I don't know of anybody living each day counting on numbers for a pack of blessings--outside those in my neighborhood who play the three-digit lotto. The story is really a sliver of life well-evoked. Thanks for the treat & looking forward for more. By the way, why is this story classed in Urban Fantasy?
I loved your story... I thought it was very good. I could "see" what was going on; it was nice to be able to read a picture painted with words like that.
Keith Crust was his stage name he chose at 13. Keith Krussmacher is his real name or birth name. That is how I understand it anyways.
Absolutely captivating. Granted, some of the influences are readily noticeable; traces of Bukowski and Palahniuk. But it just gives the story a welcoming familiarity, rather than a derivative quality. Characterization was spot-on. Keith Crust was a believable sketch of an also-ran punk. Likewise, Paula could have easily been a Manic Pixie Dream Girl caricature, in the hands of a less skilled writer, but this story made her feel convincingly quirky. The subtle hypocrisy of Keith's worldview was a really nice touch.
Thanks for your thoughts, Pablo. Interestingly (and perhaps embarrassingly) I have never read anything by Palahnuik. I keep meaning to read Fight Club but....well, you know. Probably read Bukowski somewhere back in the teen years. I guess that just shows how influences filter through culture, even indirectly.
The most glaring shortcoming of Twitter? That it doesn't allow enough characters for me to blast that gorgeous last sentence across the whole Internet. Hot damn, that's a beautiful bit. I like it so much, I am RETYPING IT below just to see what it might feel like to write such a sentence: "As he moved towards her, it was like what stepping out on stage used to be: his voice crouched in his throat, his heart beating in his palms, as he burst out under the lights and let the bright world rip through him." Nice. Very, very nice.